Saturday, April 12, 2014

Stumbling through history towards beer

This is one of several posts on drink in the Middle Ages. The others are:

At the start of our era, Tacitus (c. 56 – after 117) famously wrote of the Germans: “Their beverage is a liquor drawn from barley or from wheat, and, like the juice of the grape, fermented to a spirit.” Note that he does not name the drink, but only describes it, as if it was unfamiliar and exotic. Which raises a simple question: how did Tacitus not already know of beer, or something very like it?

For one thing, in the same period Roman soldiers in Britain were not only drinking it, but using what would become one of the common words for it. Around 100 C. E., a Roman decurion in Britain wrote: "My fellow-soldiers do not have any cervesa; I request that you order some to be sent." (Nelson) This may only be, however, because they were stationed in a place where it was common.

Still, Tacitus was certainly not the first in Roman, nor even Greek, culture to mention it. In his own case, he was a friend of Pliny the Younger, whose uncle, Pliny the Elder (23 – 79) had already written of the drink: “From these [grains] are made drinks, zythum in Egypt, celia and ceria in Spain, cervisia and several sorts in Gaul, and in several other countries.”. One of these words – cervisia – became the standard term (cervoise) for the drink in Gaul; the others are among the most common ones found in earlier writers. What is more, Tacitus' own father may have been stationed in Belgium. While a Roman official would have had no trouble importing wine, it is very likely that the local Gauls drank, as the Gauls always had, some form of fermented grain drink.

And yet Tacitus treats it as a new discovery, unknown to him otherwise.

Tacitus' peculiar ignorance is not exceptional; it would still be found centuries later. Yet, if writers from Latin cultures tended to view beer as a “barbarian” drink, it had been known long before Roman contact with the groups (Gauls and Germans) they considered so.

Defining the terms

Before proceeding, it is important to understand the shifting terminology on this subject.

In general, a modern reader should be aware in reading about “beer” in this period that that word may translate a number of different words or even descriptions in Latin, none of which correspond to the French (originally German) word (bière), which did not appear until after this time. The drink in question was most often made from barley or wheat, but it was also made from oats, spelt or a number of other grains. Some was simply infused; some was produced using relatively complex methods. The words for these drinks – zythos, ceria, curma, cervoise, etc – are sometimes defined in contradictory ways, either because writers themselves did not properly understand their meanings or because different groups made them differently. None, for most of the Middle Ages, was made with hops (and so would not have kept for long periods).

To complicate matters, modern writers often refer to the older drinks as “ale” to distinguish them from later beer. But the distinction between ale and beer varies depending on the context (today it often refers to “top” vs “bottom” fermentation).

It should be unnecessary to point out that, whatever exactly these drinks were, none much resembled the commercial product most drink today. Notably, they would have been cloudier, often with a foam of yeast floating on top (allowing Gallic bakers, as Pliny famously noted, to use it in bread). Some was even drunk with a straw. The beer itself, not made with hops, would not have been as bitter; still, there is evidence that either wormwood or hops was sometimes added when drinking it, simply out of taste. But then, so were other things (honey, spices, etc.). Early Roman and Frankish drinkers were not shy about “enhancing” their alcohol.

The earliest beer

The first recorded beer was made in Sumeria. It is unlikely that either the Greeks or the Romans knew much of Sumerian culture. But both were acquainted with the next nation known to have made beer: Egypt. In the fifth century B.C.E., the playwright Aeschylus (c. 525/524 B.C.E. – c. 456/455 B.C.E.) had a Greek king tell an Egyptian herald, “Nay, thou shalt find the dwellers of this land /Are also males, and drink not draughts of ale/From barley brewed” Note that, though he is addressing someone from a sophisticated culture, he already speaks of beer with contempt.

Whether the drink somehow made its way from the Mideast to northern Europe or was independently invented by the Gauls and/or the Germans is unclear. Some see a Babylonian influence in German terms for numbers, so it is not impossible that exchanges occurred between these cultures, despite the distance between them (Menninger). Others have traced it from Egypt via Spain. Eyer writes “Given how popular beer was in Gaul, one can ask if it was introduced or if it is among the inherited knowledge of the Gauls..." He explains that the first records of beer-making, and on an industrial scale, come from Sumeria; then:
From the fact that Egyptians exported their beer of Pelusium – the Egyptian Munich – all the way to the Iberian peninsula, it has been deduced that the way of making it was introduced by this route into Gaul. Well, we know that the making of beer among the Gauls took place in a domestic context and that it was, like baking bread, a woman's task. If truly the Egyptians had introduced beer into Gaul, this would have taken the form of industrial breweries like the original ones and the beer would have been made following Egyptian recipes. Well then, ingredients, beyond barley, were used in the making of zythos which were not found on Gallic soil.
However, he says, barley grew well there. Further, the export of Egyptian beers seems to have come well after the beginnings of making beer in Gaul. “We can then say that the making of beer was done in Gaul for all time independently of foreign influences.” (He also refers to linguistic proof of this, though without providing details.)

Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd-3rd c.) quotes Posidonius (ca. 135 B.C.E. – 51 B.C.E.) as saying of the Gauls that the rich drank wine. but “the poor drink Zythum, which is made from wheat and honey: and many drink it without honey and call it corma.” (Pauperes bibunt Zythum, quod fit ex tritico et melle: a multis bibitur sine melle, et vocatur corma.)

This is interesting on two counts. One is that it provides a rare distinction between zythos and corma/curmi (even if this seems to contradict later data; see below.). The other is that he again shows that beer, even among the Gauls, was looked down upon (probably because the upper classes wanted to imitate the dominant regional culture; that is, the Romans).

Virgil (70 – 19 B.C.E.) describes a similar drink made from sorbus (service) berries by the Scythes, “a joyful drink of fermented and sour sorbus imitating wine.” (pocula laeti Fermento atque acidis imitantur vitea sorbis ). Otherwise, at just about the time of Caesar's conquest of Gaul (58 B.C.E). Diodorus of Sicily wrote (60 – 30 B.C.E.) that the Gauls used a drink made from barley. Strabo (64/63 B.C.E. – c. 24 C.E.) mentions Lusitanians (in Iberia) drinking zytho.

Note by the way that if beer is often referred to as a northern (that is, Germanic or Gallic) drink, it also has a long history in Spain.

Just before Pliny and Tacitus wrote about the drink, Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 CE) wrote of two different barley drinks: zythos and curmi:
Zithon, which one drinks, is made of Barley. Once drunk, this Zithon provokes urine, but it damages the kidneys and nerves, and especially the panicles of the brain. It causes windiness and nasty humors in the body, and makes men into lepers....
One also makes from Barley that brew called Curmi, and which is used in sacred places, but which causes headaches, engenders coarse humors and hurts the nerves. These sorts of brews are also made of wine, in parts of Brittany and Iberia, facing the West.
With all this, there is yet another reason one would think that, after Caesar, beer would have been familiar to Romans: Rome now ruled Egypt, where it had always been made, and even levied a brewery tax there.

Pliny might well have known of some of the accounts above, since he uses the same terms in his passage on the drink. Is it natural that Tacitus did not? Given how many accounts of grain-based drinks already existed at this point, should he at least have been familiar with the general concept?

One can only speculate. But these two writers were certainly not the last Romans to describe such drinks.

Beer after Pliny and Tacitus

Cassius Dio (c.155 – 235) wrote that the people in Pannonia (towards what is now Serbia, Slovenia and neighboring areas) ate and drank both barley and millet. About the same time, the Roman jurist Ulpian (c. 170 – 228) wrote that "certain zythos, which is made from wheat, from barley or from bread, is not included [as wine in a bequest]".

More striking is the mention in Diocletian's edict (303) setting prices of cervesiae cami and, at half the price, zythi. This shows that these drinks were officially being sold in the Roman empire at this point. It also shows cami (probably curmi) as more valued than zythos.

The Gauls continued to drink beer even as Roman influence made wine more generally available. Eyer cites a Gallic altar found near Sarrebourg (now in the Museum of Metz) which shows two figures: Nantasuelta and Sucellus. By attributes shown in the image, he concludes that Nantasuelta (standing by what may be a beehive) was the goddess of hydromel and Sucellus – holding a cooper's hammer – was the god of beer. One vessel found in Paris from around the fourth century bears two different inscriptions: “Hostess fill my cup with beer” and “Innkeeper have this cup filled with spiced wine”, showing a convivial coexistence of the two drinks.

Around the same time the Emperor Julian (reigned 361 – 363) wrote an epigram against “wine made from barley”, saying that the Gauls “lacking grapes made wine of grains” which had the “smell of a goat” (unlike wine, which had “the smell of nectar”).

Writing slightly later, Marcellus Empiricus (Burdigalensis) (4th-5th c.) mentioned cervisia in a matter of fact way. In one passage he suggests making a hot potion of salt in "cervisia or curmi" (cervesae aut curmi). (Unfortunately, he gives no hint of how they differ; note that Diocletian's edict conflates them.) In another, he suggests putting a pill into beer, but gives an alternate version for provinces in which there is no beer (in qua cervisia non est). This highlights the fact that the drink's use remained regional. Slightly later, Paulus Orosius (c. 375 – after 418) not only mentioned the drink but virtually described how to make it. He tells of the Numantians (in Iberia) using a drink “which was not wine” made
with the juice of wheat made through skill, which juice they called caelia from being heated [calefactio]. In fact the potency of the grain of the soaked cereal is activated by this fire and then it is dried, and after being reduced to flour is mixed with soft juice. 
(Nelson translation)

Beer under the early Franks

In 486, Clovis I made the Franks rulers of a major part of Gaul; soon they would drive out other Germanic groups which had made similar conquests elsewhere. Now the very people among whom Tacitus had noted grain drinks were rulers of Gaul.

Early in this era, Anthimus wrote in a dietetic for Theuderic I (reigned 511-534): “Drinking cervoise and mead or aloxinum is fine for almost everyone. Because cervoise which has been well made and has its full force does us as much good as the infusions of other sorts which we make.” Though Anthimus was a Greek with a strong Latin culture, he was clearly familiar with the drink.

By the time of Gregory of Tours (c. 538 – 594), then, beer would seem to have been well-known to Latin speakers as well as their new Germanic leaders. Yet in The Glory of the Confessors, he tells of a man cooking grains which had been swollen by water and germinated to make a drink; that is, of grains being malted in an early step in brewing. But, like Tacitus, centuries before, he describes the process yet does not name the drink. Elsewhere, writing of Auvergne he says "a drink is made for the harvesters... which is prepared with grains soaked and cooked in water; it is the same preparation called ceria, according to Orosius, from the word meaning to cook." This is more striking still; clearly he knew of the drink through literature, but regarded it as a curiosity in his own experience.

To complicate matters, he appears to reference it more concisely in his Glory of the Martyrs and his history of the Franks. Most translations have him here referring directly to beer. But in fact the Latin word he uses – sicera – only meant strong drink (later it would specifically refer to cider): vinum aut siceram ("wine or sicera"); Vinum, siceram, vel omne quod inebriare potest ("wine, sicera, or all that can inebriate"). Still, given that the drink in question was offered as an alternative to wine, it is hard to think it would not have been beer. Why then does he not use any of the several words mentioned by other classical writers for it? Again, one can only wonder, especially since Gregory's friend and contemporary, Fortunatus (c.530 – c.600/609) wrote of a man who “ruined water” with cervoise which “muddies bottles with its dregs.” In listing the drinks Radegund avoided, he again mentions “muddy beer”. (cervisaeque turbidinem).

Fortunatus' very mention of it, like Anthimus' mention of it for Theuderic, shows that it was served at the better Frankish tables. Both Clothar (Radegund's husband) and Theuderic, as kings, would have had access to wine and no doubt both drank it. But being Franks, they also continued to drink beer.

Yet just after this, Jonas of Bobbio (c. 600 – after 659), writing of St Columban in Gaul, thought it again necessary to explain what the drink was: “cervoise.... which is cooked from the juices of wheat or barley.” He then goes on to say that it was the preferred beverage in Gaul, Britain, Ireland and other nations, though not among the Scotch and the people of the Dardanelles. Yet curiously Jonas too uses the word sicera to describe what is probably beer, in a famous incident in which Columban was visiting the king of Burgundy Theuderic II (587 – 613) and destroyed vessels of “wine and strong drink” (vinaque ac sicera) with a gesture.

Again, if he meant beer, why not just again use the word cervoise? And if he did not, what ever was the "strong drink" in question (spirits were still a long way off)?

These references across several centuries suggest that, even though it was the favored drink of the Gauls and Germans, for a long time beer remained so little known among those of Roman culture that some continued to rediscover it. Was this because even beer-drinkers seemed to prefer wine when they could get it and those in the south, especially, had relatively ready access to the latter? 

Beer becomes established

By the seventh century, cervoise had become standard enough for the monk Marculfe to include it (c. 650 – 655) in a list of items to be provided to traveling officials (“so many muids of white bread, wine and cervoise”). By the next, it was listed, matter-of-factly, as a rent in various monastic and manorial records.

This was now Charlemagne's time and some credit him with the spread of monastic brewing:
With the spread of his Holy Roman Empire around 800 AD, Charlemagne built many monasteries across Europe, many of which became centres of brewing (Unger 2004). Initially, most of the monasteries were located in Southern Europe, where the climate permitted the monks to grow grapes and make wine for themselves and their guests. However, when later monasteries were established in Northern regions of Europe, where the cooler climate made it easier to grow barley instead of grapes, the monks started to brew beer instead of wine (Jackson 1996).
(Poelmans and Swinnen)
On Charlemagne's own estates, De Villis refers to sicatores (makers of strong drink) who were specifically qualified to make beer. It continued to generally be made from barley or wheat, (Wirth, 126) but any grain might serve the purpose. The charter for the abbey of Saint-Denis mentions beer made with spelt. In 832, the rents for this abbey included malt; that is, a product prepared especially for making beer.

Beer by now was standard enough as a drink that the Church seems to have excluded simple beer from penances, even when flavored beer was singled out. In 868, the Council of Worms ordered certain penitents to abstain from wine, mead and “honeyed beer” (cervisia mellita) three times a week; in 895, the Council of Tribur made a similar pronouncement. Regino (abbot of Prüm 892–99) also uses this phrase in penances for homicide, parricide and fratricide (and for the latter two one only had to abstain three days a week!). Yet none of these lists include simple beer, suggesting that the unflavored version was too basic to ban.

Hopping towards true beer
The history of the use of hops in beer is as fitful as that of beer itself.
The Franks had used hops as a flavoring for centuries. The remains of mead found in a fifth century grave in Cologne included traces of hops (Salins). Both hops and wormwood were used to add a bitter taste which drinkers of the time apparently enjoyed, perhaps in contrast to the honey which (as above) was also often added.

Charlemagne's own records are some of the first to mention hops. At St. Amand-les-Eaux (one of the emperor's estates) tenants gave “10 measures of malt and 2 measures of hops” and on another farm “6 measures of malt and one measure of hops”. It is interesting however that tenants at another gave “25 buckets of cervoise.” The fact that the beer could be given as a rent shows that it remained drinkable for sometime after it was made, which suggests the use of hops or something similar. 

In statutes written for the abbey of Corbie in 822, it is specified in regard to hops that the porter “will acquire enough for himself to make his beer.” (sibi adquirat unde ad cervisas suas faciendas sufficienter habeat). This would appear to be a clear statement that hops were used in making the beer itself.

There is some evidence too that the Bavarians had been using these in beer since the ninth century; yet the practice still did not become widespread:
An important innovation was the introduction of hops in brewing. There is evidence that already around 800 AD, German monasteries added extracts of the hops plant to preserve their beer longer. Moreover, the bitterness of the hops also balanced the rather sweet flavour of the malt, the other main ingredient of Germanic beer (Behre 1983 and 1999). This innovation would ultimately transform the entire global beer economy. However, despite its benefits, the use of hops did not spread rapidly over the beer producing regions in Europe. In fact, it would last several centuries before its use would be widely accepted.
(Poelmans and Swinnen)
These authors go on to postulate that the use of hops spread slowly in part because of tax issues; the special mixture called, in the north, gruit was taxed, while hops were not. “Therefore, in many regions, including Britain and Holland, the use of hops was prohibited for a long time.” For whatever reason, it is true that as late as the thirteenth century, Parisian makers of cervoise were forbidden to use anything in their product but water and grain. Only some specific additives were named – berries, spices or pitch – but hops would seem to have been out of the question as well.

In fact, the Middle Ages were already ending by the time the use of hops became established. In the mid to late fourteenth century, the Belgian monk Leonard was already referring to hoppa – that is, hopped beer – as a regular drink at a Liège monastery. Says Eyer:
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the use of hops became general to the detriment of other herbs. It is useful to recall the decisive intervention of the duke of Burgundy and of Flanders, John the Fearless, who, to promote the use of hops and to underline the importance he attached to it, created the Order of Hops. Beer, such as we know it, was born.
Strangely, the fact that flavoring with hops became exclusive bit by bit, coincides roughly with the introduction of the term "beer" [bière] which would take the place of that of cervoise. It is thus starting at the beginning of the fifteenth century that we can truly speak of beers in France.

The long road to beer

What does it mean that Tacitus was unfamiliar with beer even as Roman soldiers were drinking it, and after a long history of its mention in literature? Or that, centuries later, Gregory of Tours, writing under Frankish rule, again found it necessary to describe the drink to his readers even as it was already served on royal tables?

The answers to these questions may have more to do with the nature of how knowledge was disseminated in these early centuries and how exchanges occurred between the Latin and other cultures than it does with the actual history of the use of beer. Still, the questions themselves show that beer, if it became a major Medieval drink, was far from universal by the start of the Middle Ages, even in its simplest form, well before the use of hops began – virtually with the Renaissance – to change it to the drink we know today.


Tacitus, Cornelius, The Agricola and Germania 1894

Aeschylus (Greek:Αἰσχύλος, Aiskhulos; c. 525/524 BC – c. 456/455 BC) “The Suppliants”, The tragedies of Aeschylos: a new translation  tr Edward Hayes  1894 

Diodorus (Siculus), The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian: In Fifteen Books. 1814

Julien, Oeuvres complètes de l'empereur Julien tr Tourlet v3 1821

Marcellus (Empiricus), Marcelli De medicamentis liber 1889

Saint Gregory (Bishop of Tours), "De Gloria Confessorum", Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent Grégoire, V2 1860
Grégoire de Tours, "De Gloria Martyrum", Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges-Florent Grégoire, évêque de Tours 1857

Grégoire de Tours, Histoire ecclésiastique des francs. ed Guadet,  Book V 1836

Fortunatus, Venance, "Vita S. Radegundis Reginae", Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina v88 1850

Venantius Fortunatus, Poésies mêlées / Venance Fortunat ; traduites en français pour la première fois par M. Charles Nisard,...avec la collaboration pour les livres I-V de M. Eugène Rittier 1887

Jonas (of Bobbio,Abbot), Life of St. Columban,  1895 

Ionas, "Vitae Columbani Vedastis, Iohannis Liber I", Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum, 1905 

Wirth, Max, Histoire de la Fondation des Etats Germaniques 1873

d'Ayzac, Félicie-Marie-Emilie, Histoire de l'abbaye de Saint-Denis en France 1851

Levillain, L., "Etat de Redevance de Saint Denis (832)", Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire de Paris et de l'Ile-de-France, V35-36 1908

Poisson, Nicolas Joseph,. Delectus actorum ecclesiae universalis, seu nova summa conciliorum 
v1 1706
Regino (Abbot of Prüm), Reginonis abbatis Prumiensis libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis 1840

Nelson, Max, The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe 2005



  1. Thanks again for the resource on my blog!

    It's funny that you walk through the "zythos" path - I've done that myself, albeit in a somewhat less detailed fashion:

    However, you might be interested to know that I found two different processing methods for it - one documented in the Talmud, and the other allegedly from Zosimos of Panopolis.

    I've been using those processing methods to attempt to inform interpretations of the other beverages that Pliny mentions alongside it.

    Excellent writings!

  2. Your review of zythos is in fact quite informative (and reminds me I need to dip into the Talmud a bit).

    I'm also thrilled you're playing with early brewing methods. I'm not a brewer but tried some myself just because I kept reading period accounts of very domestic brewing. Unfortunately, finding unpearled barley in L.A. is a trial. So seeing someone with the chops do it is very useful.